For a full decade before his 2003 debut feature The Station Agent, Tom McCarthy was a boyishly handsome character actor -- and a boyishly handsome character actor he remains, appearing in parts as diverse as the favored son-in-law in the Meet The Parents movies and the Baltimore Sun fabulist who invents a serial-killer story in the fifth season of The Wire.
Now with two more features under his belt -- the 2007 drama The Visitor and his immensely likable new film Win Win -- McCarthy has emerged as the quintessential actor's director, though that's not entirely meant as a compliment.
Not surprisingly, given his background, McCarthy seems more committed than most to writing roles that give actors something to do. There are six or seven parts in Win Win alone -- some major, some as minor as two to four scenes -- that feel substantial and fully realized in ways that elude most filmmakers. He also has a great habit of showcasing gifted journeyman actors who are usually relegated to supporting parts: think Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent or Richard Jenkins in The Visitor. Even Win Win star Paul Giamatti, an A-list superstar by McCarthy standards, hasn't exactly spent a career siphoning roles from George Clooney's well.
Yet McCarthy's sensitivity to character and performance covers up weaknesses in other areas; his films are visually undistinguished, with the paint-by-numbers drabness of a thousand other indie dramas, and his stories have a tendency to appear more rough-hewn and unconventional than they turn out to be. On balance, the nobler qualities of Win Win come out ahead, partly because the ensemble is so exceptional and partly because McCarthy writes himself into interesting little corners before he contrives his way out of them.
By now, the Giamatti persona has been well-defined -- exasperation and despair, tempered by mordant wit -- but the actor's every performance is like a snowflake, and here McCarthy provides him a role that's subtly down-to-earth. Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a New Jersey lawyer whose dwindling practice threatens the modest middle-class life he's built for his wife (a reliably terrific Amy Ryan) and two daughters. Through a desperate act of legal chicanery, Mike assumes guardianship of a mentally compromised client (Burt Young) in order to collect the $1,500 monthly fee for taking care of him.
Mike's plan for a quiet deception hits a wrinkle when his client's troubled teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up looking for his grandfather, having run away from a mother (Melanie Lynskey) who's been in and out of rehab. Mike and his wife, Jackie, take the boy in temporarily, and what seems a difficult situation proves to have a silver lining: Turns out Kyle reached the state championships as a wrestler, and Mike just happens to moonlight as the coach of the local high school's pitiful wrestling team.
By description, Mike's actions make him sound shifty and opportunistic on two fronts: taking his client's money on one end, exploiting Kyle's talent on the other. But Win Win has an admirably complicated view of its hero's misdeeds, which come from a place of decency and compassion, too, however misplaced. The plot requires a lot of sorting out -- and accomplishes it far too neatly -- but Giamatti and Ryan, aided by production design that's rich in domestic clutter, give Mike and Jackie's home a warm, lived-in quality that validates some otherwise false notes in the writing. Win Win is partly about a family that reconstitutes itself to accommodate another member, and the performances make it plausible and heartrending.
McCarthy gives generously across the ensemble: Bobby Cannavale, a revelation in The Station Agent, gets most of the laughs as Mike's dopily enthusiastic best buddy. Lynskey plays the closest thing the film has to a villain, but leaves the impression of a too-young mother who never stopped being overwhelmed. And Shaffer captures the disaffected monotone of a teenage boy so effectively that you wonder if he's acting or not. All these characters make a beautiful mess together, even if McCarthy spends too much time tidying it up.